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Best and worst foods for diabetics

Best and worst foods for diabetics

We list out the foods that nutritionists say must be on your menu -- and some that you should avoid
Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K

Being bombarded with food options and unsolicited information from those around us can kill our appetite. If you are confused with the flurry of foods that people say “you must eat” or “you must not eat” because you are diabetic, it’s safest to follow your nutritionist or doctor’s advice.

That’s precisely what Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Mandhir Singh Gujral, 79, did when he went on a strictly vegan diet for two weeks and on a normal one the following week — as prescribed by his dietician — to keep his sugar level under control.

“I followed a vegan diet — completely vegetarian and no dairy,” says Gujral. “I would eat a combination of steel cut oats with sprouts, millet porridge (khichdi) with vegetables, etc. Then go off it and eat normal diet for a week. This meant completely cutting of refined carbs (carbohydrates) like rice, wheat and flour (maida), but adding sorghum bread (jowar roti), eggs with pancakes (chilla) or red unpolished parboiled rice with lentils (dal) once or twice a week with vegetables. For my share of fruits, I ate an apple or guava at 4pm keeping a long gap between that and dinner.”

So how did the mango-lover in him resist the seasonal ‘king of fruits’? “I succumbed to the temptation but smartly!” he says. “My dietician recommended eating one mango at 4pm without any accompaniments and going for an hour’s walk to burn off the sugar.”

Aim for the best combination

There’s no two ways about it: the key to your health is moderation and control along with ample exercise (and, like Gujral, staying cheerful too).

But picking the good foods for diabetes is not easy. Since each person’s diabetic condition differs, it’s important for dieticians to chalk out an individualized plan.

Vaishali Verma, consultant dietician and diabetes educator, Manipal Hospital, Delhi says the best foods are those that are in combination with one another. “You need to have a balance of carbs, proteins and fibre in the same meal,” she says. “If you eat semolina (sooji) upma, you need to add vegetables or sprouts to it to even out the refined carbs in the sooji. It’s the quantity that counts.”

Diabetic food list

Nutritionists say that whatever diet you follow, ensure the following are on the menu in the right amounts. (To make it interesting, the foods below have been categorized into those that naturally contain proteins, those that contain fats, fruits with less sugar, and non-starchy vegetables and whole grains.)


These are of different types — those got from plants (ideal for vegans), dairy and animals.

  • Plant-based foods: Beans, lentils, peas, nuts (like peanuts, almonds and cashew), soybean products (like tofu and tempeh)
  • Dairy products: Low-sodium cheese, cottage cheese (paneer), low-fat milk, yoghurt (curd), clarified butter (ghee)
  • Animal-based foods: Seafood, chicken, duck and turkey (without skin), eggs, lean version of meats like beef, pork and lamb


Not all fats are bad. Some natural fats — like mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats — present in certain foods are healthy and your body needs them to protect the heart and reduce cholesterol levels.

  • Mono-unsaturated fats: Nuts like peanuts (groundnuts), almonds, cashew and pecan. Also: avocado, peanut oil and peanut butter, olives and olive oil, safflower oil, canola oil
  • Polyunsaturated fats: walnuts, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseed and flaxseed oil


Most diabetics avoid eating fruits because they are high in sugar and carbohydrates. However, not all fruits have a high glycemic index (GI), and some are a good substitute for healthy carbs.

The fresh fruits you must have include apples, oranges, lemons, grapefruits, kiwis, plums, blueberries, strawberries, cherries, guavas, pears and peaches.

Top up on dried fruits such as prunes, dates and figs.

Non-starchy vegetables

There’s an entire marketplace of wholesome, mineral- and vitamin-rich, fibre-full veggies out there you must stock up on:

  • Dark green leafy veggies like spinach (palak), kale and mustard (sarson), amaranth, asparagus, celery, lettuce and leek
  • Broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, tomato, onion and sprouts

Whole grains

These natural whole grains and their products have low GI and are high on fibre: brown rice, whole wheat grain, whole oats, barley, millets, quinoa and bulghur or broken wheat (dalia).

Healthy foods for diabetes

List of worst foods for diabetics that diabetics must totally avoid or eat only in small portions depending on their health conditions and doctor’s advice are:

  • Processed foods: Any food that is high on preservatives, sodium and chemicals is a strict no-no. These include baked products like white bread, pizza and pasta; high-sodium meats like bacon, ham, bologna, hotdogs and sausages; and high-fat cuts of meat like pork ribs; ready-to-eat foods like popcorn and chips, ice cream, candy as well as some cheeses
  • Artificially sweetened drinks: Carbonated and ready fruit drinks are high on sugar content. Those best avoided are sodas, energy drinks, fruit and mixed-fruit beverages, sweet tea and sweetened coffee
  • Canned foods: Canned fruits that come doused in sugar syrup or artificial flavouring can make your sugar levels shoot up
  • Fried foods: Any food high in trans fats and saturated fats are harmful for diabetics. These include French fries, potato chips and deep-fried fish, and meats with skin, butter and margarine
  • Fruits: Those in high sugar content — such as pineapple, mango, watermelon and ripe bananas — are taboo.

So, say yes to the best food to eat for diabetes and embark on a healthy culinary journey.


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